April 24, 2013

A zealous and dedicated officer

On April 27, 1813, the American flotilla gathered offshore the capital of Upper Canada, York (modern-day Toronto). The Americans moved quickly and overpowered the outnumbered British forces sent to engage the American landing parties. After some fierce skirmishing, the British commander, General Sheaffe, decided to retreat from Fort York.

Leading the American land forces during the battle was Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. Born in 1779 in New Jersey, Pike quickly became a distinguished member of the American Army. He was stationed at a number of different frontier posts before being ordered to lead an expedition to explore the southwest.

The Pike Expedition, as it was later known, discovered a mountain that expedition members attempted to climb. This mountain was later called Pikes Peak and is located in Colorado. Eventually Pike’s expedition got into trouble when they mistakenly entered Spanish controlled New Mexico and Spanish authorities captured Pike and some of his men. Pike learned a great deal about the frontier during his expedition and subsequent detention by Spanish authorities.
Zebulon Pike
By 1811, Pike was serving with the 4th Infantry Regiment during the Battle of Tippecanoe. By 1812, he was promoted to colonel and then quickly promoted again to brigadier general in March 1813. Pike earned the admiration of his superiors who believed he was a zealous and dedicated officer who would have a promising future in the military. When Pike was placed in charge of the attack on York, he issued detailed instructions to his subordinates on how to proceed with the dangerous landing at York.

Pike landed with the bulk of the American forces in the middle of fierce skirmishing near the woods outside York. At about noon as the Battle of York raged Pike organized his men for a major push toward Fort York. At the same time, General Sheaffe gave the order for the British regulars to retreat toward Kingston and for Fort York’s main magazine to be blown. The explosion of the magazine wreaked havoc on Pike and his men who were about 200 yards away. The shockwave knocked men on their backs and flying debris struck Pike and his men. Pike was struck by a boulder that crushed his spine and left him clinging to life. Pike was quickly transported to the American ship Madison where he died, resting his head on a British flag that was captured during the battle and given to him as proof of the American victory.         

The American victory was marred by the loss of Pike, along with another 55 dead and 265 wounded. The Americans stayed in York for a few days looting, freeing prisoners from the local jail and harassing citizens, with the help of local American sympathizers. The American also burned many public buildings, including the legislature buildings and the library.

This Saturday, April 27th, marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York. The City of Toronto has many events planned throughout the city to commemorate this historic event. Click here to find out more.  

April 17, 2013

Sleep tight

I am sure many have said this to children when putting them to bed, but what does sleep tight actually mean. There are two answers: one that has an 1812 connection and one that is the correct answer.

The ‘1812’ answer goes that when mattresses were supported by ropes, as many beds were in 1812, they needed to be periodically tightened in order to ensure the occupant did not fall through the bed. This explanation is not true. One reason is that when you say ‘sleep tight’ you are talking to a person, not a piece of furniture. I do not know anyone who wishes a bed to ‘sleep tight.’

The origin of the expression derives from the use of the word tightly. The word tightly means ‘soundly, properly, or well.’ This means when you say ‘sleep tight’ you are saying sleep soundly. The phrase fast asleep comes from the earlier expression ‘tight asleep,’ which has a similar origin to sleep tight.

If you want to see something related to sleep, you can visit Battlefield House in Stoney Creek on Saturday, April 20 at 12 p.m. for the unveiling of the Bicentennial Quilt. Click here to learn more about this free event.

April 10, 2013

Prisoners of war

Captured soldiers during the War of 1812 faced different forms of confinement. Some men could face severe forms of incarceration where others were released soon after being captured.

When militiamen were captured, both the British and Americans often paroled these men after they promised to not fight for the remainder of the war. If men broke this promise, they could be summarily executed if captured.

If American regulars were captured, they would often be sent to Quebec to remain in prison for the duration of the war. In order to get to their prison some soldiers had to face hardship along the way. The Americans captured after the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812 were paraded through the streets of Montreal while the band played ‘The Rogue’s March’ and ‘Yankee Doodle.’ The hungry and half-naked prisoners, Winfield Scott being among them, were presented to Sir George Prevost where the prisoners were compelled to remove their hats during the playing of ‘God Save the King.’
Winfield Scott
Some American prisoners were not as ‘fortunate’ as those in Montreal. For captured British subjects who joined the American military, they were given a tough choice, join the British military or face trial and execution as traitors. This harsh treatment caused the Americans to threaten the execution of British soldiers in return, leading to a long negotiation between both countries.

Officers of both countries did not have to fear long incarceration. Some officers were permitted to return home until officially exchanged and those that remained prisoner often lived luxuriously compared to their non-officer comrades. The exchange of officers could prove unfortunate for the liberating country. After Winfield Scott’s return to the American Army, he was quickly promoted and proved quite a challenge for the British in the Niagara 1814 campaign.

For some paroled officers lives could get worse. After Lieutenant Porter Hanks surrendered Fort Mackinac in 1812 he was paroled back to the United States. Hanks was held at Fort Detroit while awaiting his court martial for the surrender of Fort Mackinac. While waiting for his trial the fort was attacked by Isaac Brock’s forces. During the bombardment of Fort Detroit, a cannonball ripped through the room where Hanks was standing, cutting him in half and killing the officer beside him.

If you want to learn more about this topic, make sure you head to the Niagara Historical Society on Thursday, April 18 at 7:30 p.m. David Hemmings will be speaking about prisoners in the War of 1812. Click here for more details. Furthermore, this weekend you can head to Fort George for their School of the Soldier event. 

April 03, 2013

Unsung Hero

The War of 1812 is filled with heroes who have become icons in the nations that they served. However, the war is also filled with veterans who simply performed their duty and have since been forgotten. One such veteran is interred at the Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls.

Thomas Allison has the distinction of being the first white child born in St. Davids. His father moved from Yorkshire, England to the Niagara in 1790. His father served in the militia during the Battle of Queenston Heights and Thomas was present to see the American surrender. Upon his father’s death in December 1812, Thomas took up the fight by carrying despatches to British forces at Beaver Dams, and he witnessed the burning of Lewiston, both events happening in 1813.
 Allison family grave, Drummond Hill Cemetery
In 1814, Thomas was officially part of the militia when he participated in the first phase of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. During the fierce fighting, Thomas was redeployed to drive wagonloads of wounded to Niagara. Thomas did not end his military service with the War of 1812. During the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837, Thomas served with forces loyal to the crown and joined a team that delivered a mortar to Chippawa in order to bombard William Lyon Mackenzie who was holdup on Navy Island.

Thomas Allison’s feats may not sound too heroic at first, but it is important to note that Thomas was only 13 when he delivered dispatches through enemy territory at Beaver Dams. In 1814, the young Thomas was only 14 when he stood on the frontlines at Lundy’s Lane before delivering the dead and dying back to Niagara. As you think about this story, you can ask yourself; what was I doing at 13 years old?

On Saturday, April 6th, you can head to the St. Catharines Museum to see the opening of their new War of 1812 exhibit. They will have presentations and a play about domestic life in 1812. If you don’t want to see the exhibit, then you can head over to the Jordan Historical Museum to watch a play about a domestic servants’ personal story in Upper Canada during the War of 1812. Both events look great.